Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why Africans are world’s fastest... and living to be 100

By Charles Onyango Obbo

I was watcing athletic on TV last Wednesday night when an age-old question returned to bother me:

Why are Africans, and black people in general, world champions at the sprints, middle distance and long distance races (the marathon), but not pole vault, the high jump, or swimming?

Why are Eastern Africans (Ethiopians and Kenyans) so absolutely dominant in the middle distance races and marathon? There have been many reasons offered for this, from biology, to environment. But what it is about the weather, a community’s embrace of athletics, or genes, would make one a good runner and not a jumper, no one has quite been able to explain.

I suspect that history, especially slavery and colonialism, and economic conditions in Africa today, might also explain why we are great runners but lousy pole vaulters. In the 19th and early 20th century Africa, whether you survived, perished, or were enslaved was down to your legs. If you could run fast enough, you escaped the slave hunters. If it was not slave hunters, but the warrior chief from the next hill launching a surprise attack on your village, your survival often depended on whether you were swift-legged enough to escape.

Even if you were captured by slave traders, you still needed robust lungs to survive. Millions of Africans died on slave ships, or in the squalid conditions they were held in slavery. Only the toughest made it. In America, they continued running. Only the fastest made it to freedom or escaped the racist lynch mobs. Their great great grandchildren, present-day African-Americans, inherited their robust genes and quick legs.

In Africa, things didn’t change. As our wars continued, the people who would find safety were the ones who were able to make it in one piece to a neighbouring country as refugees. During the many famines that have ravaged Africa, and in the refugee camps, again it is those with strong legs to run and get to the food first, who are more likely to survive.

One of the most tragic, but also awesome sights, is watching the UN or Red Cross do food drops in some remote place in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, or Somalia, which are inaccessible to relief supply lorries. It takes remarkable athleticism to get to a sack of food from an air drop, and lug it off to your tent safely without it being pulled off your back by other desperate hands.

Anyone who has had to travel about Nairobi and most other African cities at dawn will know about the large crowds of poor workers from the slums in the outskirts walking into town for labour, and streaming out – again on foot—to return to their shanty homes at dusk.

These men and women do a lot of walking, almost daily, year upon year.

Since over centuries and generations we have survived partly because of our strong legs, you can argue that over this period, the collective blessings as Africans and black people have become resident in our legs. Great runners like like Usain Bolt and Paul Tergat are, because strong African men and women were, some time in the 1750s.

Another age-old problem was about, well, age itself. Why, given exactly the same conditions and health condition, will one man die at 60, yet another live to a ripe old age of 110 years? You wouldn’t have imagined it, but this is even more complicated than why black people are such fine runners.

On June 19, the world’s oldest man died. Tomoji Tanabe, a Japanese retired engineer, died peacefully in his sleep. He was 113 years and 274 days old. The Independent reported that the secret of Tanabe’s long life was that he stayed away from alcohol and cigarettes all his life.

With the death of Tanabe, the title of the world’s oldest man passed to a Briton, Henry Allington. Today, he is 113 years and 26 days old. Allington, the last surviving founder of the Royal Air Force, has seen three centuries, two world wars, and 18 World Cups, The Independent noted importantly. So, if you went by Tanabe, you would say that the man who wants to live to be 100 years should stay away from booze, cigarettes and, according to some centenarians, women.

Yes, until Allington – quite some character he is – was asked about the secret to his longevity. He replied: ‘‘Cigarettes, whisky, and wild, wild women.’’

So there you are. There is no secret.

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